See. Do. Be. Free.
An Open Letter to the Community around this year's theme.
Issue 017: Wholeheartedness – “Being Found at Your Post” by James Alison
As Street Psalms enters its 25th year of forming grassroots leaders in vulnerable communities, we are inviting friends of our work to reflect with us on their own sense of vocation and call. This month James Alison reflects on our guiding question:
When did your sense of vocation become real to you and what does it mean for you to show up wholeheartedly in your call when confronted with disappointment, failure, despair, and your own half-heartedness?
One of the occupational hazards of those of us who find ourselves working in some religious or pastoral activity is that we are expected to be able to give a clean account of how we were “called”. And for many, this is coupled with the freedom and backing to pursue that call from communities that enthusiastically affirm them. This is not at all my experience. And from what I know, it is not the experience of many in the Street Psalms community who find themselves serving outside traditional structures and with little external authority to back them.
I remember being convinced that I had a vocation, but that was long before I was able to question how much of my conviction was self-importance and a need to be special. It took me years to see how many self-driven forms of “passionate intensity” (to quote Yeats), were me at my worst. Years of peeling away and undoing would be required if ever I were to fall into the hands of the living God. But the undoing of me had nothing to do with what I was convinced needed to be undone. You see, I lived with the presumption that as a young gay boy, becoming a man, I was an abomination and couldn’t possibly be good. The priesthood for me was both a pursuit of a vocational dream and a wrestling with being an abomination to discover if I might ever become human, let alone good. Was my obstinate refusal to believe that God could be as brutal towards LGBT people as the Churches insisted, simply arrogance and rebelliousness? Or was there something of divine faith involved in refusing to let the issue go until I had been blessed?
I remember reading an essay by C.S. Lewis in which he explained that a vocation is “being found at your post”. He used as an example a minor character, a “second soldier” from a Shakespeare play, who comes on stage only very briefly, to defend his master in a skirmish, and is killed in the attempt. The second soldier, Lewis points out, fulfilled his vocation. He died at his post. Since then, the second soldier has been my hero. Just as has Anton Schmid, a real-life “second soldier” whose story is recounted in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Serving in the Wehrmacht, Schmid worked out where the Jewish people he was putting on trains were in fact going, realized it was better to be dead than to participate in their transportation, deserted from the Army, and began hiding Jews in the woods. After a couple of months, he was found by the Gestapo and shot. Schmid died at his post, as great a human being as has ever lived. But how to find my way to the post at which I must be found?
I have in retrospect no plausible vocation narrative from the time I joined the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) in Mexico in 1981. The graces of that experience are many, and ongoing, but none of them included a draw from Another, a sense of belonging to a community or place. There was no “stability of place” (to use the Benedictine phrase) in my life. During my process of studying with the Jesuits in Brazil, I fell in love with theology and its discipline. I discovered myself swimming both relaxed and stretched inside it, certainly a pointer towards the post at which I must be found. During my studies, I was invited by my local Dominican community to be ordained early, really because it helped with some practical local matters. So at least I was called to the priesthood by others rather than self-importantly pushing myself forward. In retrospect that turned out to be an important detail.
The truth is that my vocation narrative didn’t really begin until almost six years after ordination, when thanks to a variety of more-or-less violent experiences owing to my embryonic attempts to be truthful about being gay, I was brought to the end of my tether.
I went on a one-week retreat in a Jesuit retreat house in Santiago de Chile in 1994. The purpose of the retreat was to pray through whether I had a vocation to the Jesuits rather than to the Dominicans.
I went for a longish walk each day of the retreat, and on the Thursday afternoon, my walk took me through a well-known gay cruising park in downtown Santiago. It was particularly busy on Thursday afternoons, for that was the day the military had the afternoon off. I wasn’t there for a pick-up, rather just to gaze upon the beauty of men. And so, after enjoying a glimpse of the courting rituals of militaris chilensis, I returned to the retreat house.
Later I went into the chapel to pray before the Blessed Sacrament, rather beating myself up: wasn’t I on this retreat to think about my vocation, and whether I had one to the Dominicans or the Jesuits? And if so, what was I doing hanging around a gay cruising ground? Talk about a divided heart! How could someone like me possibly be of any use to God?
Then something happened. I heard the voice. It reverberated like a penny falling on a kettle drum from a very great height. And it said: “Feed my sheep”. I knew it was the real thing. It wasn’t any of my daily fare of feelings, impulses, self-justifications, parental voices or peer suggestions. The voice seemed to be simultaneously from “within” and from without. I had never known any such thing before. I’d attended charismatic meetings, and even gay-conversion therapy sessions, but without ever feeling anything except rather baffled that everyone around me seemed to be feeling things, while I didn’t.
But here it was. I had come to a Jesuit retreat to pray specifically about my vocation. And I had received a command. One which gave both a full answer to my question, and none at all. Which was both solemn and non-directive. Which took no part in my beating myself up over the visit to the cruising ground, but rather treated that as a given part of who I was. The word was not simply an instruction, but a calling into being to fulfill what was commanded. It contained something of a future promise of who it was that I would come to be, though absolutely nothing practical about the how, the where, the with whom.
After the initial shock of something too big for words, the first results of this was a fairly rapid descent into what I later learned was depression. I knew that I was going to lose all of the apparent structures of what I had imagined beforehand to be my vocation – the belonging to a religious Order, employability within the Church, the value of my studies.
A few months after this, in the immediate aftershock of the death from AIDS of Laércio, the Brazilian man I loved, I was given to understand that the love between us had been real, and the “official position” of the Church (that gay love can only ever be hedonistic and tied to an objectively disordered being) was not true. With that, the deep schism within my heart concerning the teaching, which I had tried to justify, came to an end. Thereafter I knew it would have been a lie to carry on keeping up the necessary clerical appearances. So at last an element of wholeheartedness was born in the midst of the collapse of the normal circumstances within which a Catholic priestly vocation is lived.
There followed some months, even years, of loss, depression, anger, unemployment, including wondering what on earth could the voice have meant by giving me a command and immediately making it impossible to fulfill. It seems terribly cruel to demand “something out of nothing,” a perfect double-bind. And it took time for me to discover that it was not cruel. Rather it was an invitation to dare to be brought into being out of nothing, and thus to bear witness to Catholic faith not from convenience, or employment. And for such witness to be a matter neither of arguments or of qualifications. With no authority at all other than whatever comes with trying to learn to be truthful. Which is of course the only authority that matters, because it is a witness to the One who brings things into being, is only perceived by others, and is lost the moment it is grasped as if to do with me.
I’ve learned that I wasn’t entirely crazy to think that I was meant to be a preacher like the Dominicans, or to be a priest-theologian like some of the Jesuits who taught me. Only rude to have tried to push myself upon them. If there is a wholeheartedness that is coming with this vocation, it is in refusing to let the pain of being a priest who is not part of a presbyterate, and a theologian who has no collegiate belonging, be anesthetized. The pain is a constant making alive of the real – of what should be but isn’t. A sign both of how much self-importance I have yet to lose – and of the appropriateness of occupying such a non-place to bear witness to One who brings into being those who are nothing – St Paul’s “τὰ μὴ ὄντα” (1 Cor 1:28). It’s this pain that I recognize within the Street Psalms community and want to honor. It is this pain that I see in so many others who pursue their call without institutional backing.
If there is any sign that I am not entirely self-deceived, it is that over the years of stumbling toward the post at which I am to be found, my fondness for the human condition has grown. Far more difficult to believe in than God’s existence, or power, or any of the usual divine qualities, is that amidst all our violence, hatred, lies, and futility, God is actually fond of us, believes in us, likes this crazy experiment, breathes our dead-ends into highways and our less into more, with a love so tender that it scarcely dares to speak its name as it intelligences our hearts.
James Alison (b. 1959) is a Catholic theologian, priest and author.
Learn more at jamesalison.com